The other students at my Spanish school and I were warned. You don’t go into the cemetery at night. And if you’re a woman, best not to go there at all, unless in a group.
So naturally, I put it on my list of places I wanted to see before I left Xela.
I asked my Spanish teacher to take me and she managed to convince another teacher and student to come with us – safety in numbers.
Although it looks like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s not the undead that roam the streets of Xela’s cemetery.
Only two police officers patrol the entire city within a city, so it’s the shady, the knife-wielding and the drug-addled that hang out in empty or unguarded tombs.
According to my teacher.
And we did come across someone a little…I’d like to say out of his tree but considering he called out to us from high up in a tree, with a definite emphasis on the high, it’s not exactly the right way to describe him.
The cemetery is beautifully decrepit, and perfectly illustrates the relationship that the strongly religious Guatemaltecos have with death. In Guatemala, life after death is just as important as…well, life.
At their cheapest, plots in Xela’s cemetery cost 80 quetzales (about $10) per year.
Literally holes in the walls, bodies are only allowed to rest there for as long as the family can afford the upkeep – when the money stops coming, the bodies are exhumed and tossed into mass graves at the back of the cemetery.
I have visited places like India and seen bodies burning on funeral pyres, the remains tossed into a holy river, or places like Tibet where sky burials are the norm. The ground is too hard to be broken and wood for a pyre is scarce so bodies are taken out onto the plateau and broken into small pieces for vultures to eat.
Guatemala’s rituals couldn’t be more different. Strongly Catholic, burning bodies just isn’t done here.
I asked my teacher if she thought whether one day Xela’s cemetery would be closed, and eventually buildings built on top.
‘No, no!’ she insited, shaking her head, seemingly shocked that I would even suggest it.
‘En Guatemala, el entierro (burial) es muy importante. Muy importante.’